Opinion: it seems we cannot fully escape the confines of the 16th century corset in the 21st century

By Molly Quinlan and Dee Duffy, TU Dublin

The corset may conjure up images of a busty Nancy singing in a dusty Victorian beer house, or Marie Antoinette telling the poor to eat cake. Despite this historical baggage, corsets have been making a strong revival. But why has it become so popular in an age when women are seemingly less restricted than ever?

The controversial corset dates back to the early 16th century, worn as a tight-lacing undergarment to hold and train the torso into a desired shape. Traditionally, corsets were made from whalebone and even steel to compress the waist and unnaturally deform and restrict the body.

An example of 16th century corset made to "unnaturally deform and restrict the body". Photo supplied by authors

Corsets at this time were considered a moral requirement for women within society, a symbol of restraint both physically and socially. Culturally, this became a women's ideal form and therefore it comes with a huge amount of gendered body politics. Such politics relate to the hyper-sexualised version of the female body. The history of the corset is a controversial part of fashion due to the fact it can be viewed as an instrument of the patriarchy to regulate female bodies. On the other hand, there is no ignoring the sexuality of the corset and its influence on femininity which has impacted centuries of how the female body is viewed.

The evolution of the corset mirrors the cultural and societal changes occurring at the time. In the 19th century, when corsets were most popular among all social classes, discussion began of the impact of corsets on the health of those who wore them. Many doctors blamed the corset for creating serious health risks such as deformity to the ribs, damage to the internal organs, birth defects and miscarriages.

Madonna wearing a Jean Paul Gaultier conical bra corset at a 1990 show in Rotterdam. Photo: Gie Knaeps/ Getty Images

In the 1920s, the corset moved in leaps and bounds, with fashion designer Coco Chanel's revolutionary designs which liberated women from such uncomfortable dress. Chanel envisioned women in trousers, reshaping the concept of femininity saying that "true elegance must allow the body to move freely".

During the 1970s and 1980s, fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier used corsets in their designs to empower women rather than confining them. They manipulated the traditional form of the corset by creating "underwear that was outerwear" recovering it as a symbol of sexuality and just like that the corset was reclaimed!

Since these historical breakthroughs, the corset has once again been revived in the form of a "Waist Trainer", mostly through celebrity culture. The "Waist Trainer" is most often seen advertised for postpartum bodies to help create the seemingly perfect hourglass figure after giving birth. They are typically made from thick fabrics and metal boning, not unlike the composition of the ancient corsets of the 16th century.

Corset fan Kim Kardashian

So is the modern-day corset out of bounds? It appears not and the hashtag #waisttrainer has over 1 million posts on Instagram alone. The constraints of the corset are once again flourishing in popular culture. In the current age of digital comparison, the waist trainer can be seen to contribute to unhealthy ideals of women's bodies on social media, certainly a worrying trend. The highly influential Kardashian family are known to be key drivers of the trend on social networking platforms. These platforms give a huge amount of influence to people who do not necessarily use their influence responsibly.

According to recent health studies, waist trainers are unlikely to help you lose much weight, and can be dangerous for your health. Health risks include difficulty breathing, weakened core, weakened pelvic floor, and organ damage, unsurprisingly similar to the original 16th century corsets.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, Deirdre Reynolds tries out a waist trainer and speaks to Ryan about the experience 

The waist trainer is damaging in other ways too, as this symbol of restraint is contributing to unattainable ideals of the woman's form online. Especially in an age of comparison on Instagram and other platforms, this garment can be detrimental to the body image of impressionable women, young and old. This inspires a culture that makes women feel inadequate with their natural bodies, a damaging message that has continued throughout the history of the corset, feeding into the age-old patriarchal narrative.

We have come a long way since the 16th century, but the body expectation that the corset creates remains in place, both physically and mentally, in 2021. The corset remains as problematic now as it did back then. The fabric may have change, but the corset's implications on women’s health and standing in society remains stubbornly embedded. 

When reflecting over the uses of the corset throughout its lengthy existence of restriction and celebration, it appears society at large has taken one step forward and two steps back. Women cannot seem to fully escape the confines of the corset. 

Molly Quinlan is a Fashion Buying and Management Masters student at TU DublinDr Dee Duffy lectures in consumer and society studies at TU Dublin. She is Programme Chair on the Masters in Fashion Buying & Management at TU Dublin's School of Retail and Services Management

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ